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On the Pain and Ugliness of Life

Sometimes life is heavy. Sometimes you get overwhelmed. The past couple days have been like that for me. As I drove home from my boyfriend’s house last night, I was overcome with a lot of sadness all at once. I woke up with it still clinging to me this morning.

I’ll be honest, things could be a lot worse. My life isn’t in shambles, not even close. Compared to the plight of so many in our world today, my life is a walk in the park. But sometimes the little and medium things pile up and then the big things feel even bigger.

My grandpa had heart surgery yesterday and the surgeon found some issues no one was expecting. My cat has been acting odd and won’t eat much. I’m sick and tired of having to drive an hour and a half both ways just to see my boyfriend and I miss him dearly on the days when I don’t get to see him. I’m moving soon and preemptively missing having my family so nearby. And then there are the bigger issues. The attacks in Paris and ongoing trouble in the Middle East. The arguing and hate that comes from fear. The helpless feeling you get when you realize that you’re one little human being on a planet of 7 billion hurting and broken people. 

As I showered this afternoon (because it took me all morning to work up to getting myself out of my pajamas), some of the lessons learned from my recent studies in Ecclesiastes came to mind.

Everything is meaningless. (1:2)

God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time, but he has also placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives. (3:11)

I saw something else on earth: in the place of justice, there was wickedness, and in the place of fairness, there was wickedness. (3:16)

This is what I saw: the oppressed were in tears, but no one was comforting them; no one delivers them from the power of their oppressors. So I considered those who are dead and gone more fortunate than those who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not been born and has not seen the evil things that are done on the earth. (3:1b-3)

It is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart. (7:2)

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these days?” for it is not wise to ask that. (7:10)

In times of prosperity, be joyful, but in times of adversity, consider this: God has made one as well as the other, so that no one can discover what the future holds. (7:14)

No one really comprehends what happens on earth. Despite all human efforts to discover it, no one can ever grasp it. Even if a wise person claimed that he understood, he would not really comprehend it. (8:17b)

This is the unfortunate fact about everything that happens on earth: the same fate awaits everyone. In addition to this, the hearts of all people are full of evil, and there is folly in their hearts during their lives–then they die. (9:3)

Those are hard words to be sure. Harder still to accept when they come from the book in which we expect to find our hope. But is it not also comforting to find that the Bible speaks so openly and honestly about a pain so many of us feel? Is it not helpful to know that the Bible does not gloss over the way things are, making life out to be happier and easier than it is? I much prefer a realistic faith to one of blind reassurances.

And for all those “downer” verses in Ecclesiastes, there is a repeated refrain found that encourages enjoyment of life (2:24-26; 3:12-13; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9).

So I recommend the enjoyment of life, for there is nothing better on earth for a person to do except to eat, drink, and enjoy life. So joy will accompany him in his toil during the days of his life which God gives him on earth. (8:15)

How does this fit together? It’s important to remember that the book of Ecclesiastes seeks to answer the question: is there anything worthwhile in life under the sun. That phrase “under the sun” appears 29 times throughout the book and is crucial to understanding its message. The author is not claiming that life is meaningless; he is claiming that life under the sun is meaningless. What does he mean by life under the sun? He means to refrain from considering eternity and God. Stated otherwise: is there anything worthwhile in temporal, earthly life, in and of itself? The answer he gives us is no.

But he cannot help himself from looking above the sun, as it were. Those repeated refrains of hope come with mentions of God. God is the one who enables man to enjoy anything during his time on earth (2:24b-25).

So as I got dressed this morning and bits of Ecclesiastes popped into my head, I took a moment to reflect on the fact that the Bible has a book that views with absolute honesty the trials and pains of this human life. Ecclesiastes holds no punches, saying the things that come to mind when we look upon failing health of loved ones and terror attacks overseas. Our pain is not new or novel. It’s part of this existence under the sun, and it always has been. Things haven’t gotten worse; they just are. But God hasn’t left us to flounder alone. He enables us to enjoy life despite the pain and suffering.

I say this in no way to minimize the pain of those who have experienced loss or to negate the necessity for mourning or sadness. I say this to validate those things and to offer what the Bible teaches us to do in such times: enjoy what we can for it is a gift from God. So despite the things that drag my heart down, in the midst of the things that bring tears to my eyes, I enjoy a cup of coffee from the recent marriage of my two friends, I read a book recommended by my boyfriend and laugh at the clever writing, I look forward to watching TV with my brother when he gets home, I listen to new music and reflect on the things that are good.

Life will never be perfect, friends. At times it will be ugly and hard, and it will break your heart. But eat, drink, and enjoy life in the ways in which God enables you. And don’t forget to look above the sun, where hope and peace resides.

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